I learned about our nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize while in Warsaw. (…) For me, this award is associated with the well-known slogan “For our freedom and yours”. (…) I know that it resounded widely during the Polish uprising against the autocratic regime of the Russian Empire. Today, with this slogan, we are once again fighting for our own freedom. (…) And we are very grateful to Poland for its tremendous support for the Ukrainian people at all levels: governmental, territorial, organisational, and civic. We always feel that you are next to us, and we are very grateful,” Oleksandra Matviyivych, head of the “Center for Civil Liberties,” winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, told Niezalezna.pl.
On December 10 in Oslo, parallel to the main Swedish ceremony in Stockholm, the Nobel Peace Prize 2022 will be presented. Among the winners – for the first time in the history of Ukraine’s independence – are its citizens. Niezalezna.pl’s correspondent in Ukraine spoke with Oleksandra Matviychuk, who heads the Ukrainian human rights organisation “Center for Civil Liberties,” which received the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize along with Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski and the Russian Memorial Association.
“I found out about the award while I was in Warsaw.”
Do you remember your first feelings when you were informed of the award?
I will say right away that I found out about it while I was in Warsaw. So, Poland will forever be associated with this emotion for me. My colleague Oleksandra Romantsova, with whom we were together on a delegation in the Polish capital, called me with the good news. At the time, we were driving quite tired from different ends of the city to meet at the Warsaw train station.
So, Ola calls and says that she has just received a call from the Nobel Committee. In a few minutes, the winners will be officially announced and we are among the laureates. The first thing I thought of was: “Someone is kidding!” Because we didn’t even know that we had been nominated. What’s more, a week and a half earlier I had received the Right Livelihood Award, known as the “alternative Nobel [ed. – an award founded in 1980 by Swedish writer and philanthropist Jakob von Uexküll]. This prize is awarded for defending human rights, environmental protection and peace. So, the fact that we can also receive the Nobel Prize right away… To be honest, we didn’t even think about it. It all seemed like something unreal to me. Now there is a time when you live with the feeling that the pages in the history book are just being written, but somehow, I don’t feel like a textbook character. I just do what I have to do and work very hard, and certainly not for awards.
The seconds between the announcement of the results and that moment when our phones literally exploded from the number of calls and text messages were a mixture of surprise and joy for us. But it lasted literally too short. Then came the realization that it was true, and we had indeed received Ukraine’s first-ever Nobel Prize. And this means that a huge responsibility rests on us. We understand perfectly well that now is not the time to be simply happy. The Nobel Prize at a time of war is a unique opportunity for Ukraine to make the voice of human rights defenders heard in this war.
The slogan “For our freedom and yours” is still relevant today
Ukrainian society reacted tumultuously to the Nobel committee’s decision to award the prize simultaneously to three nominees – from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. In contrast, judging by your initial reactions, you took it quite calmly. Do you think the Ukrainian public will accept your arguments?
It is quite understandable that people in Ukraine are hostile to anything that connects us with Russia and Belarus. We are at war. And it didn’t start in February 2022, it’s been going on since February 2014. Although, in fact, for a long time we have been trying to break out of the grip of the Russian Empire, the USSR and the Russian Federation, which have been trying to destroy our identity for centuries. That’s why treating everything Russian with detachment is an understandable reaction of citizens of a country that is fighting a war. But we proudly accept this award. Because in no way is this about “brotherly nations.” The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize is about people fighting the evil that is trying to reign again in our part of the world. It’s about freedom having no borders, about common resistance to evil, and about human rights defenders from different countries building invisible bonds among themselves to defend human rights. Freedom has no borders, which means that mutual support in the defence of freedom is not a question of borders. Ukrainian society feels this now more than ever.
For me, the award is associated with the well-known slogan “For our freedom and yours,” which has not lost its meaning these days. I first heard it from my teacher, dissident and philosopher Yevhen Sverstiuk. I know that it resonated widely during the Polish uprising against the autocratic regime of the Russian Empire. Today, with this slogan, we are once again fighting for our own freedom. All of us together. Because Ukrainians are fighting not only for themselves but also for the freedom of Europe. If Putin is not stopped in Ukraine, he will go further. And we are very grateful to Poland for its tremendous support for the Ukrainian people at all levels: governmental, territorial, organisational, and civic. We always feel that you are next to us and we are very grateful.
Continuing on the topic of the reaction of Ukrainian society… Many of our interlocutors in Ukraine are puzzled: why did you actually become laureates and what did you receive the prize for? After all, before the Nobel Committee’s decision, the public knew little about your organisation.
We are human rights defenders, not celebrities. In our activities, we focus more on issues than on self-promotion. Most people know about our initiatives, which have already made headlines. For example, the “Euromaidan SOS” initiative. During the Revolution of Dignity, the “Center for Civil Liberties” launched this initiative to help persecuted protesters across the country. Several thousand people joined us. As a result, we were able to help hundreds of peaceful protesters who were unlawfully persecuted by the authorities at the time [editor’s note. – pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in the results of the 2013-2014 protests]. Without exaggerated modesty, I will say that the success of this initiative became a good example for other social activists. This led to the emergence in Ukraine of important associations such as – Crimea SOS, Vostok SOS, Donbas SOS and many others. Today they are helping thousands of people who have suffered as a result of Russian aggression. Another example of the activities of the “Center for Civil Liberties” was the large international campaign #SaveOlegSentsov. We conducted actions in more than 35 countries calling for the release of Ukrainian director Oleh Sencov [since 2014 (arrested in Russian-occupied Crimea) until 2019 a political prisoner in Russia – editor’s note] and other political prisoners. Thanks to a coordinated effort, well-known actors, producers and film directors joined the campaign. Posters of #SaveOlegSentsov hung not only in squares and streets but also at film festivals in Cannes and Toronto. It was a powerful campaign that united thousands of people and achieved its goal.
Also, the “Center for Civil Liberties” was the first organisation to send its own mobile teams in 2014 to document war crimes in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Over the years, the Center has collected the stories of people who survived captivity, the stories of the families of those who suffered, and the stories of those who witnessed war crimes.
Today, the “Center for Civil Liberties” team has focused on documenting war crimes and creating an international tribunal to prosecute Putin, Lukashenko and other war criminals who have the blood of Ukrainians on their hands. Since February 24, we have collected over 23,000 cases of committing war crimes, which we are collecting for national and international tribunals.
But in my opinion, the award was given not only to the “Center for Civil Liberties” and our volunteers. The Nobel Peace Prize for Ukraine recognizes the struggle of the entire Ukrainian people for freedom.
“We feel the strong support of our Polish brothers.”
Does your organisation cooperate with Polish human rights organisations? Does it receive assistance from Poland?
Our regular partners are the “Euromaidan-Warsaw” foundation, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and a number of other Polish organisations. In addition, we feel support from Polish officials. Throughout the years of the war, Polish MPs and diplomats on international platforms have supported Ukraine and our position on punishing Russia for war crimes in eastern Ukraine and political persecution in Crimea. And we feel strong support from ordinary people in Poland who are helping Ukrainian refugees, collecting donations, investing their time and effort as volunteers and helping us survive. In the work of human rights defenders, it is extremely important to build and maintain ties. We all work as a global network. And the better our synergy, the better results we achieve. That’s why we work not only with partners with whom we are connected across the border but also with human rights defenders from all over the world, especially from the countries that make up the OSCE region, which includes 57 countries.
As I said, I learned about our award in Poland, where our team participated in the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference and told diplomats from various OSCE member states about international crimes as a result of Russian armed aggression in Ukraine. This year’s event was organized by the Polish Chairmanship of the OSCE, chaired by Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau. Poland assumed the chairmanship of the OSCE at a very difficult time when its member states are facing global challenges to peace and security. Once again, I want to emphasize Poland’s important role in ensuring security, political-military cooperation, economic and humanitarian assistance, and promoting human rights issues in the context of Russian aggression in Ukraine.
It is not appropriate to count other people’s money, but I have to ask: is there already a vision of what to spend the financial part of the award on?
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize is Ukraine’s first “Nobel”. With this decision, the Nobel Committee honoured the Ukrainian people’s struggle for freedom. Many needs in Ukraine have to be financed. We will certainly make sure that this money serves the people.
The Center for Civil Liberties was founded in 2007 to promote human rights values.
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the Center’s team participated in mobile observation groups in Crimea and the Donbas. The Center was also involved in submitting to the International Criminal Court a citation with testimony about crimes against humanity committed by the regime of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych during the 2013-2014 Euromaidan. It formed the “Human Rights Agenda” coalition, an informal coalition of human rights organisations working to improve legislation following human rights standards.
Volodymyr Buha – Ukrainian journalist, songwriter, and former long-time correspondent of the World Department of “Gazeta Polska Codzienna”.
Translated by – Olga Alehno